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Sick of Chrome or Internet Explorer? Try the best alternative browsers

Barry Collins
20 Feb 2015
Best alternative web browsers
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We pick five browsers that offer something different to the big names

Innovation in web browsers has stagnated. The big players – Microsoft, Google, Mozilla, Apple – have largely stripped features out of their browsers over the past few years, concentrating on keeping the web experience as clean as possible. Though not necessarily a bad thing, it means you can barely get a fag paper between them when it comes to choosing one over the other.

However, look away from the mainstream and there are some more interesting developments. There’s a bunch of niche or upcoming browsers that offer unique features, something that provides a point of differentiation that’s more significant than a few milliseconds in a JavaScript benchmark.

Here, then, is our pick of five alternative browsers for 2015.

Vivaldi - https://vivaldi.com

Vivaldi browser

Created by Jon von Tetzchner, the founder of Opera, Vivaldi eschews the current trend for minimalist browsers. The Opera heritage is immediately apparent: the “Speed Dial” grid of favourite websites that appears on new tabs has been lifted directly from the mothership, and the integrated mail client (not yet implemented) is another old Opera idea.

It’s not just a tribute band, however; Vivaldi brings some fresh ideas to the fore. Tabs can be dropped onto one another to form groups (one for webmail, for example, and another for social networks), potentially making the top of the screen less cluttered for those who like to work with a fistful of open tabs. Tabs can also be docked to any side of the screen: top, left, right or bottom.

There’s a facility for making notes on web pages, which although poorly implemented in the current early preview, could potentially be a boon for research. There’s also a barrage of keyboard shortcuts for power users, and Vivaldi says it’s working on “spatial navigation” so that you never have to lift your hands off the keyboard to navigate the web.

We’re not quite sure what to make of filters that allow you to render web pages in sepia or black and white, but we’re glad someone’s willing to experiment with the web browser again. 

The Tor Browser - www.torproject.org/projects/torbrowser.html.en

Tor browser

The Tor Browser has a simple purpose: to prevent others from tracing your internet activity. It reroutes your internet traffic around a host of volunteer relays across the world, making it incredibly difficult – if not impossible – for anyone to trace the sites you visit back to your individual IP address.

Why might you want to hide your location or identity? Of course, there are all manner of nefarious reasons, but there are some pretty strong legitimate ones too, such as whistleblowing from inside an organisation, to avoid having your browsing activity traced by an employer, or to post with complete anonymity on a forum or messageboard. The browser can also be run directly from a USB thumb drive, so there’s no traces left behind on the host computer.

The various geographical hops do have some disadvantages. Browsing with Tor is slower than the mainstream browsers, and because your location is effectively randomised, using sites that change content depending on your location – such as Netflix, for example – can be tricky.

Maxthon - www.maxthon.com

Mathonm browser

Maxthon is deceptively powerful, stuffed with lots of little features that you would never discover unless you knew they were there. One of our favourites is Super Drag and Drop: click and hold on a link in a web page and drag it a few pixel to the left and it opens in a new browser tab – handy if you want to keep the current tab open for later reference. There’s also an option to put the browser in split-screen mode, effectively having two different browser windows with different sets of tabs running alongside one another, which is a great way of using the full breadth of today’s widescreen monitors.

The browser comes with AdBlock Plus pre-installed, so you’re unlikely to ever be troubled by bothersome pop-up ads or autoplaying videos, and there’s a mute button built into the toolbar at the bottom if a noisy intruder does get through. A library of extensions is also available to add even more features to the browser.

Maxthon’s trying to position itself as the “cloud browser”, with the option to share bookmarks, password and history from device to device – it has browsers for Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, Windows Phone and Linux. For those who don’t trust big corporations such as Google and Microsoft with such data, it’s another good option.

Torch - www.torchbrowser.com

Torch Browser

Torch is an attractive browser designed specifically for media junkies. A warning before we go any further: this is one of those annoying pieces of software that tries to worm free toolbars onto your PC, so be careful what you’re clicking during installation. Also note that some of the features in this browser are decidedly iffy when it comes to copyright law.

It’s built on the Chromium browser, so if you already use Google Chrome, all of your bookmarks and history will be automatically imported. Once that’s done, it’s on with the fun. Go and watch a video on YouTube, for example, and a little download button will start bouncing in the toolbar, inviting you to rip a copy of the audio to your PC with a single click.  Alternatively, click the little headphones icon and you’ll open Torch Music, which lets you search for pretty much any artist, album or song you like and have it play back in the browser, although this is little more than a glorified YouTube search engine, which means audio quality is variable and some tracks are not quite as advertised.

The dodgiest part of the browser is the built-in torrent client. Yes, we know there are perfectly legal uses for torrents, but when it includes a search engine inviting you to enter movie or album names, its intentions are pretty transparent. That search facility merely opens a new Ask search engine window, which isn’t great, but if you do find a suitable torrent link, the client takes over and downloads said content pretty seamlessly. Use at your own risk and conscience, however.

Coowon - http://coowon.com

Cowoon browser

Coowon is another Chromium derivative, this time aimed at those who like to fritter away hours playing browser-based games such as Farmville and the like. The killer feature is the ability to speed up games. In those games where you’re forced to wait for things to grow before you can harvest them and collect the necessary credit, Coowon lets you accelerate time, vastly reducing the amount of time spent gawping at the screen waiting for something to happen. It doesn’t work for all games, but it did the trick in Plants vs Zombies in our tests.

The browser also lets you log in to games with more than one account, so you can have two versions of the same game running simultaneously – again, handy for those simulation games where you’re waiting for something to be built or what not.

There’s a host of other features, including the ability to plug in Xbox controllers, take screenshots of selected parts of the screen, and double click on a browser tab to close it. Game on.

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